October hosts two displays of “shooting stars” each year—one hardly worth mentioning and the other definitely worth watching. The first to appear this month is largely unknown to skywatchers. The second one is eagerly looked forward to, especially given the typically clear skies and pleasant fall temperatures for being outdoors at night.
The Draconid Meteor Shower happens on the night of October 7th. It’s named for the dim circumpolar constellation Draco (use your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to identify it). This is classified as a weak shower, with only 10 meteors or so per hour seen at its peak under good conditions. Unfortunately the First-Quarter Moon occurs that evening and will largely wash out most of the display.
The second event this month will make up for any disappointment! It’s the Orionid Meteor Shower, which peaks on the evening of October 21st into the morning of October 22nd. It radiates from the brilliant constellation Orion (no Star and Planet Locator needed to find this famed one!). One caveat though: Orion doesn’t clear the eastern horizon until about 11 p.m. in mid-October. But shooting stars can be seen streaming over the eastern horizon as soon as darkness falls. At its peak some 20 per hour can be seen under a dark sky. And the sky will be dark this time, with only a thin crescent Moon present in the east before sunrise.
This is a nice show for those who prefer to skywatch during the evening hours, especially those who have to get up early for work the next day (actually the display this year conveniently falls on a Friday evening into Saturday morning). But the number of meteors seen increases in the hours after midnight. This is because in the morning hours our “Spaceship Earth” is facing in the direction of its spin, and also its orbital motion, so the meteors slam into the atmosphere at higher speeds than in the evening.
Even though the shooting stars are basically radiating from the direction of Orion, they may appear anywhere in the sky as they burn up and become luminous. And if you are a fan of binoculars, try looking toward the radiant itself. Often many meteors too faint to be seen by the naked-eye (the hourly rate is based only on those) become visible in these glasses!
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of 10 books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.